The average home wastes huge amounts of food at Christmas but the restaurant industry is the real culprit. The zero waste producing Silo was established in 2014 in Brighton following early incarnations in Australia. Silo has a commitment to local, seasonal and non-industrial ingredients. Caitriona Devery met owner and chef Douglas McMaster at the recent Food on the Edge symposium in Galway.
The restaurant has a unique aesthetic, for instance the plates made from plastic bags and the recycled tables. Is that intentional? Have you worked with artists to create that?
Those plates are a real crowd pleaser. I have been part of that process, for me it’s just the plastic bag plates, but there’s something about them – they’re so beautiful – there’s something so random, no-one’s ever thought of it other than Silo. Literally. Something so worthless in our society. A plastic bag. How much lower can it get as a material item? To turn it in something on the contrary, something beautiful… presenting beautiful food.
A lot of the people I’ve been working with are definitely not artists. I mentioned the tables – it was out of sheer necessity, almost desperation, that made me think of that. I don’t think in any way I would have as a design mind created that. My back was against the wall and I had to make a decision to have table legs in my restaurant.
I saw these table legs that were functional, and going to waste, so it was in front of me. I was staring at these tiny little table legs, almost perfect only for the height, and then the idea came to weld them together, to saw three inches off of half of them and weld them to the other half. We painted them yellow so it looks like football socks. I thought it looked super cool.
How long have you been doing the project? How do you keep the momentum going?
It’s been 5 years since I’ve been dabbling in zero waste. But like 2 years Silo Brighton’s been open. There was a Silo Melbourne, which was a café, that lasted for a year and then I had to come home. So it’s kind of like a semi-permanent thing.
Who are your clientele?
Well we’re in Brighton but actually it’s not what you’d expect – you know people expect hipsters and hippies, but neither come to Silo – well the odd hipster. The majority of our customers are people who just like food. The age range is 30’s to 40’s, 50’s even. A lot of even older category did come in and didn’t like it because of the chipboard [some of the furniture led to splinters].
That actually happened, many times. I would like a comfortable restaurant but I didn’t have that luxury. It’s affordable, tastes good. Then we get the second most notable customer, people who are just curious. We’re constantly getting people from London – constantly – totally to come to Silo.
How did you get interested in sustainability?
For me the whole subject of sustainability was just boring. Then I met this guy in Australia called Joost Bakker, who’s a designer and he made art from waste. He was super cool and it was so exciting. I didn’t know anything about sustainability or zero waste or anything before him. I didn’t care. I was one of these chefs that are constantly referred to as wasteful and unconscientious and then it was him making it exciting – I was so intrigued and inspired by this man, this enigma.
He is one of the most brilliant people on the planet. He’s a total genius.
I identified what converted me – it wasn’t that he’s a nice guy (he is a nice guy) but it wasn’t that. It was that he turned a subject that I had no interest in, into something that I was fanatical about because he did it in a way that was exciting. I was right, that is my business model, it has to be exciting and accessible.
The way in which that has manifested, you know, for good and for bad, I don’t get everything right – I don’t get a lot right, I’d say that in the past two years 60% of my decision have been right. It’s like I kind of think of Silo, compared to other restaurants – imagine that all other restaurants are cars driving down a motorway, they’re all following the same route. They’re all the same environmental situations, they’re all the same.
Silo is like going off on to a dirt road, your environment is totally different. You have to react, you don’t know what’s coming, there’s a thick fog, and the more you make decisions and get it wrong or right, the further away the fog clears and then you can start making the right decisions.
By your stance do you feel like you’re changing your producers’ approach as well?
So, in Sussex, there’s a lot of old school farming. Certified organic, which in Sussex is massive. So much brilliant organic food. Farming in the UK, apart from a very small niche explosive movement with young farming, the mass / general farming industry is – it’s almost depressing – you know the cost of milk, people don’t want to farm, and the farms that are still alive are very, very conservative. You ask them to grow an interesting cabbage or vegetable and they’re like, no. it’s leeks, onions, parsnips, carrots, this is what we do. It’s like come on, have some fire… don’t be beaten by this horrible machine of industrial farming.
To answer your question – I don’t think honestly speaking that any of our suppliers have changed, they’re not going to behave differently because of us. They’ll work with us to be zero waste. I think Downton Dairy are an important one because getting milk and cream in, we have to have this closed loop system with containers… they’ve been particularly patient with us. But other than that I don’t know that that many farmers have really changed their ways.
What about unusual ingredients? I’ve heard of people using animals like squirrels…
Do you mean on the menu? I would love to use squirrels on the menu – but one intense step at a time… I mean it’s not intense for me. Insects are one thing – I’ve always been like we should use insects. But you’ve got to consider what people are thinking about on the street. People perceive Silo as this odd, weird eccentric environment, which it is a bit. But you start throwing insects and squirrels in there, people are just like – mad house, not going in there.
Do you feel the Silo model could be replicated?
Scale is such an important thing. People are constantly saying oh why don’t you grow some herbs in the window? We could grow herbs in the window. We could spend 50 mins in the day staff watering them, like we did with the mushrooms – spending that much time and energy, let them grow for I don’t know 2 weeks, and then literally in once lunchtime they are gone. The amount of time and energy and space, that scale doesn’t work. And there’s so many token gestures. You know people doing these things on a tiny minute scale that doesn’t make sense, more than just sustainably, economically even.
In terms of scale I’m always fascinated by the village model, that’s a term I’ve coined. In my mind I have a scale that I think is good and it’s like a large village – the village where one guy mills all the wheat and bakes all the bread and this guy herds the cattle, a scale of hundreds producing food for a small community.
Where you start to have to industrialise things, that’s where the line is. It’s where does it need to be industrialised. Because it’s at industrialisation that everything goes wrong. That’s not true actually. Not necessarily industrialised but industrialised in a way that has to kill food – you know the pasteurising and the bleaching and the denaturing of everything. It’s where that needs to happen, that’s where the problem is.
I say that but there’s also – there’s also an idea of an enlightened industrialism. There’s an enlightened middle man, as I like to think of it – if the middle man is going to exist, this evil devil of a man, who does things to food, there could be a good version of that. The middle man in the future of food could be a guy who does take a large crop from various farms and processes food in a good way, you know, fermentation and preservation or maybe when he has to package something, there is biodegradable packaging that’s been produced in a low energy input way. It doesn’t exist, but there could be a good version of those industrial evils. It’s probably really possible, just someone has to put in the time and the money.
To answer the question in terms of scale, there’s always going to be specialist items – say 5 to 10% come from afar, and that doesn’t have to be bad, like the pirate chocolate. I use lava salt from Iceland. I use wine from France because I don’t like the crappy bad wine created in Sussex. There’s a couple of good ones but most are very unorganic, very unnatural. I choose to go to France. I think if 90-95% of things are in connectable distance – it’s that disconnection from food is where it’s all going a bit pear shaped.
That’s another unconditioning that needs to exist. The truly most sustainable menu is defined by the environment, by supply. We tell nature what to do – it should be the other way around. Industrialisation is manipulation of nature. It’s not working.
Check out Silo in Brighton here.